On Writing: Printouts, Notebooks, Scraps, and Everything Else Behind the Scenes

This seemed like a good idea at the time...
This seemed like a good idea at the time…

Back in mid-July, I’d looked at the tall black bookshelf I have next to my desk and realized that the bottom two shelves were woefully out of order. The bottom shelf was full of bound manuscript printouts of my writing output thus far; I had complete then-up-to-date prints of the trilogy, prints of the Great Pre-PC Writing Transcription Project of 1995-96, the many versions of the Infamous War Novel, and so on. And on the shelf above were three piles of unbound printouts from various other projects (finished and unfinished), notes hastily scribbled on scrap paper, a relatively large collection of my drawn maps from over the decades, lyrics for both jeb! and the Flying Bohemians, and the ridiculous pile of notes hastily scribbled for the trilogy over the course of five years.

With the best of intentions, I chose to clean it up, or at least put it in some semblance of order. Part of this was due to the fact that I’d been looking for a Mendaihu Universe outtake I’d written around 2001, as well as the 1994 version of my current WiP Two Thousand, and I couldn’t find either of them easily, not without spending a good hour digging through things. So without further ado, I pulled everything out and set to work.

This soon led to me digging through other areas of Spare Oom, as I realized I had the file box that contained various personal effects, four file boxes that carried smaller bits and bobs, and the short and partially obscured bookcase next to the loveseat. Oh, and maybe some random papers sitting in with my CDs and tapes in the Spare Oom closet. And maybe one or two things stuffed in the night table drawer next to the bed. And and (! fookin) and…

The above picture was taken once I got it all sorted. Sort of. It took an extra day for me to finish the sorting, and in the end I had not one but two boxes of stuff to throw away. It was a mix of paper and detritus, stuff I had little or no use for. One box would be shredded and/or put down in the recycling, the other put in the trash. This would soon include about a dozen or so spiral notebooks of varying use and age. They all had something written within, but hadn’t been used since then. Many of these ended up being recycled, many of the useless notes shredded and the useable ones added to the sorting.

Two days later, and things were somewhat cleaner, but I started thinking…there’s got to be a better way for writers to save their works in progress, their dead-end projects, and pretty much any piece of created prose or related notes. Do I really need to save Craptastic Revision #4, in which the novel is complete but I desperately need to fix about twenty scenes that fall utterly flat? Do I need to save this printout of the only five pages I wrote of this incomplete story, even though I have it saved on my hard drive, copied on one of the externals, and is also on my Dropbox cloud?

Let’s be honest, it’s fun for a writer-in-training to hoard every single tidbit even remotely related to any of their projects, perhaps on the offchance that they make it big and these become “behind the scenes” and “outtakes” documents like a collector’s edition DVD, or even better, on the offchance that they make it big and decide to donate their papers to a local library, like some well-established writers have. Or like me, saving every version I print out, just in case I want to refer back to an earlier version for ideas or reference material.

And then there’s reality.

Before I moved out of the family house in early 2005, my dad gave me use of a three-drawer filing cabinet, which I had next to my desk in the Belfry. This was in addition to two milk crates under the desk. The milk crates carried printouts of the various novels I’d worked on and were not presently using; the filing cabinet held the various poetry notebooks, unbound printouts, spiral notebooks big and small, and other pre-PC writings that I hadn’t scanned or transcribed. I think it even contained personal paperwork like paychecks and bills. They remained there for the most part until our final trip up to Massachusetts before we had to pack everything for our move to San Francisco; at that point in late autumn I had to spend a good couple of hours going through it all. Save? Throw away? Shred? One of the first things I did was take all the spiral bound notebooks and debate what I could save. That’s when I found at least 15 or 20 of them in there, with about twenty or so pages used, the rest blank. Well, I realized. That’s a waste. I ripped out the used pages and put them in manila folders, and donated the notebooks to one of my cousins, who could put them to good use. By the time we moved out in December, I’d gone from multiple storage containers to two large plastic storage tubs, and over the course of 2006 and 2007 I sorted through them, keeping some and shredding others. And as of today, nearly all that’s left is on those two bottom shelves of that black bookshelf. There’s another pile of printouts over on the bottom shelf of the semi-obscured bookshelf, prints I know I won’t need any time soon.

I think this is partly why most of my writing is nearly all on PC now–it’s just easier to save the various versions of my Word documents than to waste toner and paper (and space) with the various versions. I’m only using about five notebooks on a consistent basis at present:

1. College-ruled softcover moleskine: personal journal
2. Composition book with the black and white mottled cover: poetry (some habits die hard)
3. Small hardcover moleskine A: artwork
4. Small hardcover moleskine B: calendar notebook to keep track of word count and project movement
5. Small spiral notebook: notes on music and stuff I hear on the radio

I have a few other notebooks lying around that I don’t use nearly as often, but they also have specific uses. I don’t use the printer all that often as I used to…in fact, it’s been at least a few years since I last put toner in there. [I’m even contemplating replacing this one with a three-in-one so I can rescan a lot of my stuff.] I’m often tempted to pick up a new notebook here and there whenever we pass the stationery section of Target or happen into an OfficeMax, but I keep myself in check. If I do buy something, there’s usually a reason for it now, and not “just in case I need it down the road”. I did save a few from this recent culling, so I can use those first before going out to buy more.

Do I miss hoarding new notebooks? The feel of fresh pages, the excitement of writing that first page of that new project? Well, not entirely. What I do miss actually is the hoarding of snacks and 12-pack cans of Mountain Dew in my desk like I did in the Belfry, but I think I can look past that. I still hoard my writing, but it’s all digital now, saving the various versions in multiple folders and putting them on my Dropbox so I can access them anywhere. [And I mean anywhere–the other weekend I accessed my shopping list from my phone in an aisle of Amoeba.] It’s much easier to handle.

The only downside to that, of course, is that I now have multiple folders with multiple copies of multiple projects. I may need to do a bit of reorganization and culling there at some point…

[Thanks to Meagan H for the inspiration for this entry, as well as passing on this great article about notebook clearing!]

On Writing: Determination and Distraction

Some of you may have seen my Twitter pic or my LiveJournal post last night regarding “the Return of the Whiteboard Writing Schedule.”  A few years back I bought one of those erasable whiteboards that has a calendar grid on it and stuck it on the wall, eye-level, in front of my desk.  I used to have one of these in the Belfry years ago as well, which I used as a way to remind me of due dates and deadlines.  It worked out pretty well then, and figured it would be good to have again.

When I first put it up, I came up with the idea of giving myself a strict writing schedule.  Two reasons for this: my writing time is not as concrete as it used to be, and I find that I’m more productive when I give myself a specific schedule in which to do things.  This was proven during the Belfry years when I consistently hit a high word count working in the early evenings every day.  I also had one project going at the time–the Bridgetown Trilogy–so as long as I stayed true to it, I was fine.

I’ve used this schedule since around 2011.  I’ve changed it up a few times, moved things around, dropped a few projects, but for the most part it’s worked.  I chose to drop it for a time earlier this year, but for a good reason: I was doing a major revision of the Trilogy and wanted to devote all my writing time solely to that.  Now that that’s done and that I’ve anchored myself to a new writing project, it’s time to return.  I reused the January 2013 schedule I’d come up with that had served me well; the new project takes up the weekday, with Walk in Silence taking up the weekends.  I’ve also peppered in some offline/personal projects such as poetry, art, and music practice.  I’m also returning to my morning 750 Words, which I’ll sneak in during my work hours alongside my daily journaling. 

It’s a lot, but I like having a lot to work on.  It keeps the creative blood flowing.  It also makes me a better writer in the process.  Furthermore, they’re not strict deadlines but guidelines.  This isn’t homework, something I must do, but something to aim for on a weekly basis.


So…what’s this about distraction, then?

Well, that would be the forays over to YouTube, the refreshing of the Twitter feed, my longterm project of music cataloging, among other things.  Mostly done during the work day, when things are slow.  All well and good in moderation.  I can allow myself to let the time pass.  Hell, my old timewaster at work when I didn’t have internet access was doing word search games.  It’s a way to relax and keep oneself occupied.

On the other hand, when there’s nothing better to do and no immediate directive involved, it’s easy to fall into the trap of distraction.  Popping onto a website to see the latest posts, read the latest news, keep up-to-the-minute tabs on friends and acquaintances.  We still get fascinated by immediate gratification, and that’s what the internet is all about.  It’s what movies, radio, and TV were all about.  Which means that it’s up to our own selves to know when to turn it off, because no one else will do it for us.

It took me awhile to learn that.  I’ll fully admit that I get easily distracted.  Playing around with my mp3 collection, falling down the Wikipedia or YouTube rabbit holes, playing FreeCell or Solitaire, you know how it is.  I’d stop myself after twenty minutes or so, basically when my conscience would gently prod me and say “Dude, look at the time.  You’re wasting most of it right now.  You’d better get cracking if you want to get anything done tonight.”  And as timing would have it, my wife would walk in about five minutes before that moment and mock me for dicking around so much.  I’d eventually get things done, but later than usual.

This is another reason for the return of the Whiteboard Writing Schedule:  so I’m too busy doing things I enjoy, such as writing, drawing, or playing my guitar, to be distracted by timewasting things such as cat memes and silly gifs.

So.  How to avoid distraction?  Any specific steps?  Any tricks?

Not really.  Just the one step: Be aware that you’re distracting yourself, and do something about it.  Especially when you notice it and not doing anything about it.  You want to be a writer, yes?  Fine.  You want to get some writing done tonight?  Fine–then stop not writing.  You’re well aware of the distractions–it’s up to you to be procative and cut down on them.  Replace them with distractions you enjoy–reading, painting, hiking, what have you.  They may not exactly make you more productive or prolific, but they’re an outlet that inspires you.  And in the process, they may even change your mood so you’re even more creative once you start writing.